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A dance of hope by children who scavenge coal

Radhika (15), Anjali (16), Suman (21), and Suhani (15) in July 2022 perform a dance routine near the village of Sahana Pahari, Jharia.
Walaa Alshaer for NPR
Radhika (15), Anjali (16), Suman (21), and Suhani (15) in July 2022 perform a dance routine near the village of Sahana Pahari, Jharia.

Before sunset, in the 110-square-mile mining region of Jharia in eastern India, an ensemble of girls dances near an opencast coal mine. Come sunrise, they'll be back at the mines for another reason: survival.

"We're afraid, but we're bound to go with the risks," says 16-year-old Anjali, who scavenges from her local mine — typically between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m. — for a few dollars worth of coal. (NPR is only using the girls' first names because this kind of coal collecting is against the law.) An estimated 250 people in her rural village, including 65 children, fill their baskets at the pits, then sell the rocks in local markets or keep them for free household fuel.

Poverty abounds across the coal-rich state of Jharkhand, home to Jharia and some of India's largest coal reserves. The people of Jharkhand rely on the coal industry for jobs, pensions, electricity, fuel and more, with at least a few million of the state's 40 million residents believed to be informal or illegal coal workers. Jharia is essentially one large coalfield dotted with vulnerable villages. There, Anjali and other poor residents participate in the mining economy to meet their basic needs.

People scavenging coal, young and old, toil in a mine in Jharia, with most filling their baskets in the early morning to avoid detection by official coal workers.<strong> </strong>
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
/
Walaa Alshaer for NPR
People young and old scavenge for coal in a mine in Jharia. They typically come with their baskets in the early morning to avoid detection by official coal workers.
Suhani (15), Suman (21), and Anjali (16) depart from Ghansadih mine, Jharia in July 2022. They collect coal most mornings, before attending local state-run school and later art at the Coalfield Children Classes.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
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Walaa Alshaer for NPR
Suhani (15), Suman (21) and Anjali (16) depart from Ghansadih mine, Jharia in July 2022. They collect coal most mornings before attending classes at the local school and then going for arts instruction from the Coalfield Children Classes, a nonprofit organization.
A 2016 view of an underground coal fire and the ruins of homes near the village of Laltenganj, on the edge of a mine in Jharia.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
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Walaa Alshaer for NPR
A 2016 view of an underground coal fire and the ruins of homes near the village of Laltenganj, on the edge of a mine in Jharia.
A portrait of Savitri in December 2016 as she reveals her burn scars from a coal oven-related incident when she was 13, in the village of Ghansadih, Jharia.<strong> </strong>A decade on, she still scavenges from Ghansadih mine, the same fuel involved in her accident.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
/
Walaa Alshaer for NPR
A portrait of Savitri in December 2016, showing her scars from burns sustained when she was lighting her family's coal oven when she was 13. She is one of the young people who scavenge for coal from the Ghansadih mine.

A risky place to live

Anjali's family home lies just about 800 feet from Ghansadih Colliery (a coal mine and its surrounding structures), one of at least 30 pits in the region operated by Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a subsidiary of the state-owned Coal India.

It's a risky place to live, with poor air quality, underground fires and splitting or sinking land. Families have been facing relocation for years, and Anjali fears the mine and fires will one day displace her family and separate her from her friends. She says some of the homes in their village, Ghansadih, have already been damaged or destroyed by the land subsidence and fires from decades of large-scale mining activity. Bharat Coking Coal Limited did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Opencast coal mining, in which the rocks are extracted from pits and not tunneled mines, can destroy the land and cause significant air pollution. Coal accounts for about 70% of electricity generation in India, which is the third-biggest global emitter of greenhouse gases. One study estimates that in 2018, more than 30% of the country's annual deaths for people over the age of 14, as well as one in five deaths worldwide, were attributable to air pollution from fossil fuels.

Anjali, 16, in the pits of Ghansadih mine, Jharia, where she collects coal<strong> </strong>mornings and, combined with her mother and younger sister, earns up to 1,200 rupees (around $14.50) per week.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
/
Walaa Alshaer for NPR
Anjali, 16, in the pits of Ghansadih mine, Jharia, where she collects coal in the morning. She and her mother and younger sister earn up to 1,200 rupees (around $14.50) a week by selling the coal they scavenge.
Anjali at the end of the morning in Ghansadih mine, Jharia in July 2022.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
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Walaa Alshaer for NPR
Anjali at the end of the morning scavenging in Ghansadih mine.
"I want to progress in life through dance," says Anjali. "I'm learning a lot from art."
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
/
Walaa Alshaer for NPR
"I want to progress in life through dance," says Anjali. "I'm learning a lot from art."

Lessons in the arts for kids who scavenge

Trapped between poverty and pollution, Anjali says, "No one thinks about us, apart from Mr. Pinaki."

About five years ago, Pinaki Roy, a 55-year-old educator who was born in Jharia, founded the Coalfield Children Classes to try to help some of the thousands of young people balancing scavenging and studying. Today, a hundred coal collectors ages 10 to 23, including Anjali and her dance troupe, frequent Roy's free after-school lessons in English, computers and the arts, including dancing and painting.

"The larger society that calls them coal thieves must understand why they go into the dangerous mines," says Roy, citing household poverty as the driving force. "These children and young adults are hardworking, honest and talented. They're needy, not greedy, and I want to change their mindsets from coal picking to improving their socioeconomic situations through study." His small initiative assists many attendees with their school fees, in association with a Paris-based NGO, since public education in India is only free and compulsory for children ages six to 14. In 2022, all of his pupils were also regularly attending government-run schools or preparing for post-secondary coursework.

Pinaki Roy, Jharia-born educator and founder of the Coalfield Children Classes, a free after-school initiative where Anjali and about 100 more young people lay down their baskets for books several days a week, in the city of Dhanbad, just a few miles from Jharia. July 2022
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
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Walaa Alshaer for NPR
Pinaki Roy is Jharia-born educator and founder of the Coalfield Children Classes, a free after-school initiative. About 100 young people attend the programs offered.
Anjali attends a class inside Karkend High School in July 2022, in the city of Dhanbad, near Jharia.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
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Walaa Alshaer for NPR
Anjali, one of the young people who scavenge for coal, attends a class at Karkend High School.
"My students lead harsh lives that are full of risks, but they still care about education and self-expression," says Roy, 55, pictured with his students at one of four Coalfield Children Classes centers across Jharia — this one in the village of Ghansadih, about 500 feet from the local colliery.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
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Walaa Alshaer for NPR
"My students lead harsh lives that are full of risks, but they still care about education and self-expression," says Roy, 55, pictured with students at one of four Coalfield Children Classes centers across Jharia — this one in the village of Ghansadih, about 500 feet from the local coal mine.

Each year on November 9, the Coalfield Children Classes community observes "Better Lifestyle Day," an awareness-raising event that Roy launched in memory of Chanda, a former student who was killed on that day in 2018. Just four months after Roy started the classes, a mining tunnel near the 13-year-old girl's village caved in on her and two others as they scavenged for coal.

"Chanda was a very dear student, like a daughter," recalls Roy, saying her mother was grateful he tried to prepare her for life beyond the coalfields. "After she died, her mother said to me, 'Your daughter is dead, you couldn't save her.'

The educator adds, "Poverty can be a curse." Still, he holds steadfast that coal doesn't have to be his students' destiny, even if so many people in the region work in or around the mines.

Radhika celebrates her 15th birthday with family and friends, including Suhani (15), Anjali (16), and Suman (21), in Ghansadih, July 2022. "I want to be a dance teacher one day, and to teach poor children in Jharia," she says.
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
/
Walaa Alshaer for NPR
Radhika celebrates her 15th birthday with family and friends, including Suhani (15), Anjali (16), and Suman (21), in Ghansadih, July 2022. "I want to be a dance teacher one day and to teach poor children in Jharia," she says.
A view of the Ghansadih mine in July 2022. India plans to double its annual mining production to about <a href="https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/global-coal-production-2000-2025" data-key="5874">one billion tons</a> by 2025, according to the International Energy Agency.<strong> </strong><a href="#_msocom_3" data-key="5877"></a>
/ Walaa Alshaer for NPR
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Walaa Alshaer for NPR
A view of the Ghansadih mine in July 2022. India plans to double its annual mining production to about one billion tons by 2025, according to the International Energy Agency.

In 2016, in Ghansadih, Savitri, then 16, spoke of the face and neck burns she sustained at 13 after her clothing caught fire when she lit her household's coal oven. Two years later, the teenager and her younger siblings were welcomed into Roy's Coalfield Children Classes community. Now Savitri is studying to be a nurse with her savings, a scholarship from the Coalfield Children Classes and private donations. "I'm still working in the coalfields because I don't have another option," the young woman with ailing parents explains. "If I get a nursing job, I'll be able to protect my family in a better way."

She compares her family of seven to a garland: "Each member is a flower, and I'm the thread that holds us together."

Elle Kurancid is a journalist, story editor and scriptwriter
who works in the Mediterranean region.
Walaa Alshaer is a UAE-based Egyptian photographer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elle Kurancid
Walaa Alshaer